How To Find True North: With Or Without A Compass

how to find true north

Have you ever been in a situation where you got lost because you did not know how to navigate?

We’ve all been there.

Did you also know that you can navigate your way around without using a compass?

Anyone looking to go out in the wilderness needs to learn some of the gold old fashioned methods used by our ancestors to navigate. Our ancestors did not have the luxury of using a compass.

One of the most critical skills in navigation is finding true north.

If you know where north is, then you can easily find your way to your destination.

Did you know that you can find true north without using a compass?

Get this:

In this article, I am going to show you more than six methods that you can use to find true north without a compass.

I am also going to show you how to adjust your compass to find the true north just in case you want to use a compass.

Magnetic North Vs. True North

Most people think that the north indicated by a compass is the only north which is very far from the truth. Your compass makes use of magnetic fields to show the direction of the north which is not the true north but the magnetic north. True north is also referred to the geographic north.

True North (Geographic North)

true north

If you pull out a map or one of those classical globes on a swivel, you will see horizontal and vertical lines printed on it. The vertical lines are called the longitude lines, while the horizontal lines are called the latitude lines.

Each longitude line will stretch from the middle of the south pole up to the center of the north pole. The north and south pole are directly opposite to each other. The earth will also more or less rotate on the geographic north and south pole.

The true north is directly in the middle of the north pole, and any longitude line can indicate its direction because all longitude lines will connect the south with the north pole. If you manage to find one of these lines and you decide to travel along the line northwards, you will eventually reach the north pole.

Many scientists have attempted to place a marker on the north pole but is almost impossible because the water in that area is covered with ice which moves. It was easier for them to place a marker at the south pole because it is located on a landmass called Antarctica.

Magnetic North

magnetic north

The earth’s core is like one big magnet which causes the needle inside a compass to move accordingly. The needle of the compass will always face in the same direction of the magnetic field which is north. It will make it easier for you to indicate a direction more or less.

Weak magnetic fields cover the earth which also protects us from the solar winds projected from the sun.

Here comes the problem:

The magnetic north is not a clear indication of the true geographical north. The difference between the magnetic and true north can be described as magnetic declination.

What Is Magnetic Declination?

what is magnetic declination

Magnetic declination is the angle in degrees between the true north and magnetic north which indicated the difference between the two northern indications. It is also important to note that the magnetic fields of the earth are continuously changing.

The magnetic fields are moving in a western direction each year. You should also know that the magnetic declination will differ in each area of the map which is why it is essential to understand the declination in your area.

To find the true north, you need to be able to know the declination in your area and how to adjust your compass to bring it into consideration.

Finding the magnetic declination

The best way to find the declination in your area, you need to make use of a map. The declination will be shown at the bottom of the map for that specific location. It will give you two lines which indicate the true north and the magnetic north. It will also give you an angle in degrees between the two lines.

The magnetic north line can also be indicated on the left of the right-hand side of the true north. Let me show you an example.

If the magnetic north line is 12° to the left of the true north line, then it means that the magnetic north is 12° west of true north. If the magnetic north line was 12° to the right of the true north line, then it is east of true north.

It is crucial to have an up to date map because as mentioned before, the magnetic fields are changing each year and an up to date map will show you the updated declination.

Adjusting your compass

Now that you are more familiar with the declination of your area, you can now adjust your compass otherwise you will be misled. Most compasses today, will have a declination screw or a ring that you can turn.

If the true north was 12° to the left of the magnetic north, then you need to turn the outer ring or screw 12° to the left. The opposite must be done when the true north is to the right of the magnetic north.

Always turn the ring in the direction from which the true north sits from the magnetic north to compensate for the difference. 

Using A Watch With The Sun

All you need to use this method is an analog watch. You might want to take it off your wrist for this exercise as you will need to turn in the direction of the sun. Remember that the sun rises from the east and sets on the west. Keep this in mind when using your watch.

true north with watch and sun

Below are some of the steps that you will need to take:

For In The Northern Hemisphere

  • Watch orientation. If you are living above the equator line, you will need to hold your watch on a horizontal position perpendicular to the ground. You can also place it flat on the ground. You should also make sure it is around midday for a more accurate reading.
  • The hourly pointer is facing the sun. Look for the direction of the sun and make sure that the hourly pointer is facing in the same direction as the sun.
  • Bisect the angle. Create an imaginary angle from the number 12 to the hourly pointer. Once you have the angle, you should bisect it as described in the image above. This action will result in a line being drawn in the middle of the angle.
  • Placing north and south. This line will represent the north-south line. Try and draw this line on the ground. Remember the sun rises from the east and set on the west. Keep this in mind, and you will know where north is on the line.

For the southern hemisphere: 

  • This method is viable if you live below the equator. You will use the same method in this part as the previous part.
  • Using the 12-hour pointer. Instead of the hourly pointer facing the sun, you want to use the 12-hour pointer instead. It is also best to use this method during the middle of the day.
  • Bisect the angle. You want to do the same where you will draw an angle between the 12-hour mark and that of the hourly. You also want to place a line right in the middle of this angle which will bisect it.
  • Knowing where the north and south is. If you are in the southern hemisphere, you will be facing the north pole while the south pole is at your back.

Using A GPS

using gps to find true north

Today, technology is becoming more sophisticated where we are using satellites to pinpoint our location. This type of technology is called Global Positioning System (GPS).

What is good about this technology is that it can accurately give you the true north.

It does not need to rely on the fluctuating magnetic fields to get the direction of north. It pinpoints your location on the map, where the latitude and longitude are also used.

It can follow the true north by following the longitude line which is one of the most accurate methods as all longitude lines will meet with the center of the north pole.

Most smartphones will also come with apps that you can download from google play which will help to give you the true north. You can download this compass from Google Play which will also indicate true north.

Using The Sun

sunset

Even though by using the sun alone will not be that accurate but will give you an indication where the true north is more or less. With this technique, you will need to know where the sun will come up or where it sets.

In the southern hemisphere, the true north will be situated at a quarter run counterclockwise from where the sun is rising. It will also be located at a quarter run in a clockwise direction when the sun is going down.

The same method can be used for the northern hemisphere.

Stick And Shadow Method

Stick_and_Shadow_Method

For this method, you will need a long stick and some stones to place markers. The sun needs to be out and visible for this method to work. You can have a look at the video below or go through my step-by-step guide for more info.

  • Plant the stick. You can use almost any length, but the minimum length should be at least 30 cm (that of a ruler). Plant the stick somewhere where it will be exposed to the sun to cast a shadow. It should also be planted at a 90° angle.
  • Place the first marker. Mark the tip of the first shadow with either a rock or another shorter stick. You can use anything as a marker just as long as the wind will not blow it away.
  • Wait 10-15 minutes. Wait at least 10 minutes which will give the sun enough time to move so that the position of the shadow will also move. Now, place a second marker on the tip of the shadow.
  • Connect the two markers. You can use the help of another stick to connect the two points which will indicate the east and western ends.
  • Find true north. Now that you know where east and west is located, it will be easier for you to pinpoint the location of true north. You can also put another stick at a 90° with the stick that connected with the two markers.

Using The Stars & Moon

If you do not have a compass and you decide to travel at night, how will you know where the true north is?

You need the sun to give you a shadow if you want to use the shadow stick method. In this section, I will show you how you can find true north with the help of the north star, southern star and also the moon.

Historically, sailors have used this method to guide them over the open seas.

Making Use Of The North Star (Polaris)

North Star (Polaris)

If you are living in the northern hemisphere, you will have the luxury of finding the north star as it is not visible in the southern hemisphere.

It can be tricky to find this star which is why we need to look for either Ursa Major or Ursa Minor constellation. It might take some practice to see them, but once you can find any one of these two, then seeing the north star will be very easy.

Ursa Minor consists of seven stars. Four of them will form a square which is easy to spot. The other three will form a tail which will project to the right side of this square. The third or the last star on this tail is going to be the north star or Polaris.

If it is easier for you to spot Ursa Major, then you need to know how it looks like. It looks the same as the Ursa Minor version but is flipped over. Instead, the square will be located on the right side, while the tail projects to the left.

If you can draw an imaginary line upwards from the first two stars of the square, then it will guide you to the north star. Once you can find the north star, you must draw an imaginary line straight down which will indicate true north.

Finding The Southern Cross

southern cross

If you live in the southern hemisphere, the northern star will not be visible to you. You now need to rely on the southern cross which is also called the Crux.

The southern cross consists out of four larger stars and one smaller star which is barely visible. It creates the formation of a cross. If you draw an imaginary line from the head through the tail of the stars. Watch the video below for more info:

Below the southern cross, you will see another two stars which are visible. Draw another imaginary throughout the center of these two stars at a 90° angle.

The point where the two imaginary lines connect will be the marker for true south. You should now draw a line straight down from the intersection to pinpoint the location of the south.

Now that you know where south is, it will be easier to find true north as it is in the opposite direction.

Using The Moon

half moon

The moon might not be as accurate as the two previously mentioned methods but can still guide you more or less in the right direction.

The moon will start to rise once the sun sets and will also go down just before sunrise. It is essential to know this because you will use this information to guide you in the northern direction.

The sun will rise from the east and will set to the west. As it sets to the west, the moon will rise from the east. The sun will light up the western side of the moon as the moon rises.

Once the moon reaches the center point in the sky, the sun will then rise from the east which will start to light up the eastern side of the moon.

Using this information will guide you where east and west are located which makes it easier to find the true north.

Using Nature

Mother nature will also give you some clues as to where true north will lie. In this section, I will discuss using moss and anthills as an indicator.

Using Moss

tree moss

The best type of moss to look for are those that grow on trees. Moss needs a moist and cool place to grow. It also requires some sunlight along with it.

You will notice in the northern hemisphere that moss will almost always be greener in the southern part of the tree. The reason for this is that it gets more sunlight.

Anthills

anthill

Ants need to build their anthills in locations where it is the warmest. If you are in a forest where there is a lot of trees and open clearings, then search for the anthills inside the clearings.

In the northern hemisphere, ants will build their anthills in the southern side of the tree line. This area will get the most sun which will also be warmer. Now, you need to take the opposite direction of the south which is north.

Do Not Get Lost

Now you can find true north without the help of a compass. It might not be 100% accurate, but it will guide you in the right direction. 

If you like to use a compass, you will also learn how to adjust it so that it can align with true north.

Do you know of any other methods?

Please leave a comment below and inform us.

Leave a Comment